Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Ancient Art of Niello

Mycenaean dagger with niello-accented lion hunt scene, 1550 BCE, at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor παρακάτω.

Niello is a black mixture, usually of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal, especially silver. It is added as a powder or paste, then fired until it melts or at least softens, and flows or is pushed into the engraved lines or shapes in the metal. It hardens and blackens when cool, and the niello on the flat surface is polished off to show the filled lines in black, contrasting with the polished metal (usually silver) around it. The metal where niello is to be placed is often roughened to promote adhesion.
Niello was used on a variety of objects including sword hilts, chalices, plates, horns, adornment for horses, jewelry such as bracelets, rings, pendants, and small fittings such as strap-ends, purse-bars, buttons, and belt buckles and was also used to fill in the letters in inscriptions engraved on metal. Though historically most common in Europe, it is also known from many parts of Asia and the Near East.
The earliest claimed use of niello appears in late Bronze Age Byblos in Syria, around 1800 BCE, in inscriptions in hieroglyphs on "scimitars". In Ancient Egypt it appears a little later, in the tomb of Queen Ahhotep II, who lived about 1550 BCE, on a dagger decorated with a lion chasing a calf in a rocky landscape in a style that shows Greek influence, or at least similarity to the roughly contemporary daggers from Mycenae, and perhaps other objects in the tomb. At about the same time of c.1550 BCE it appears on several bronze daggers from shaft grave royal tombs at Mycenae (in Grave Circle A and Grave Circle B), especially in long thin scenes running along the center of the blade. These show the violence typical of the art of Mycenaean Greece, as well as a sophistication in both technique and figurative imagery that is startlingly original in a Greek context. There are a number of scenes of lions hunting and being hunted, attacking men and being attacked; most are now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
Pliny the Elder (CE 23–79) describes the technique as Egyptian, and comments on the oddness of decorating silver in this way. Some of the earliest Roman uses, from 1-300 CE, seem to be small statuettes and brooches of big cats, where niello is used for the stripes of tigers and the spots on panthers. These were very common in Roman art, as creatures of Bacchus. Small animal brooches were worn both by Roman soldiers stationed in the provinces and by the native population. Though brooches in these forms appear throughout the Roman world, the distribution of finds and the archaeological remains of workshops suggest that the major centers of production were Britain and Gaul. The animal repertoire of Roman Britain was somewhat different, however, where brooches with niello stripes depicted a hare and a cat. From about the 4th century CE, it was used for ornamental details such as borders and for inscriptions in late Roman silver, such as a dish and bowl in the Mildenhall Treasure and pieces in the Hoxne Hoard. It was also often used on spoons, which were inscribed with the owner's name, or later, on Byzantine crosses.

Silver panther brooch with niello spots, Roman, 100-300 CE, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Late Roman silver, gilt, and niello buckle from Gaul, 400 CE, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: